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Monday, March 25, 2013

Canada must do more to protect coastal waters from increasing industrialization

The following article appeared in the Vancouver Sun on Monday, March 25, 2013 and can be viewed in its original context here. Art Sterritt is executive director of Coastal First Nations; Michael Uehara is president and CEO of the King Pacific Lodge.

This is a story of failure, opportunity and the path to redemption in managing Canada's oceans.

The federal government has failed to honour commitments dating back to the 1997 Oceans Act to protect Canada's natural marine heritage. And this neglect is endangering not only our ocean ecosystems but also sustainable jobs and prosperity on all three coasts, now and for generations to come.

These are the sober conclusions of the auditor general's office. In a report published last month, the A-G's commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, Scott Vaughan, noted that despite many fine words, Canada has formally protected just one per cent of its coastal waters. This leaves our coastal ecosystems vulnerable to increasing industrialization. Other jurisdictions have demonstrated that 10 per cent is achievable: California recently protected 14 per cent of its ocean environments and Australia has protected 38 per cent. President Barack Obama also recently announced a major expansion of West Coast marine sanctuaries.

Vaughan's conclusions did not surprise observers on this side of the country. Most have known for years that British Columbia's ocean environments and coastal communities are tied to an environment that is increasingly at risk.

Shipping and transportation, oil and gas, renewable energy and tourism: these are some of the industries expanding their use of our northern coastal waters. And this is happening just as the North Pacific, like all oceans, shows signs of stress: declining fish stocks, rising levels of noise and pollution, algal blooms and the effects of global warming.

Some of these industries are in balance with the natural capital that supports $1 billion a year in ocean activities on the North Coast, according to new research from the University of British Columbia and WWF Canada. Some, however, are not.

At risk are glass sponge reefs found nowhere else; forests of giant kelp; grey, humpback and orca whales; vast colonies of seabirds and the marine ecosystems that sustain this wealth of life - and us.

Despite our government's oceanic failures, there is light on the horizon. Polls continue to show Canadians of all backgrounds and political leanings value our fisheries and marine wildlife. And our governments, like those of many other countries, know the way forward.

What's needed is marine-use planning with broad participation and effective follow-up measures to protect our most valuable ocean areas and the future of our coastal communities. Without this, issue-by-issue conflicts will proliferate, further threatening our coasts and coastal economies, with no agreed way to reconcile the competing demands of ocean users. The furor surrounding pipelines and oil tanker traffic is one example.

The good news is our province and Coastal First Nations, who negotiated the Great Bear Rainforest agreement, are showing leadership in an innovative partnership for ocean planning that includes site recommendations for a comprehensive network of marine protected areas. Launched in 2011, the Marine Planning Partnership for B.C.'s North Coast (MaPP) provides a collaborative opportunity for planning human uses and marine conservation around Haida Gwaii, the North Coast, Central Coast and northern Vancouver Island.

The B.C. government and First Nations have shown leadership by initiating marine-use and conservation planning for our north coast. We encourage whatever government takes office in May to continue this work.

We also call on the federal government to heed the words of the environment commissioner and re-engage with its provincial partners. Once MaPP completes its planning phase later this year, federal support will be critical to expand the plan to federally regulated activities. Only then will we and our children give this story a happy ending.

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